Playboy’s Serena Daniari reimagines the painful trans experience
Written bySerena Daniari
When I began my transition nearly four years ago, I didn’t have very much fashion knowledge to refer to. For the most part, I was haphazardly figuring out womanhood with a trial-and-error based approach. And aside from getting my weekly hormone injections, I was utterly in the dark about how to manifest my gender expression outwardly. I quickly learned that while trans people are presented with many difficulties, perhaps the most tedious, routine challenge we face is figuring out how to dress in ways that affirm our bodies and actualize our gender identities without causing us excruciating pain in the process.
I remember staring at my female friends while they walked around in their tight dresses and short skirts, burning with envy at how effortlessly they were able to exude their femininity. I wanted to wear tight dresses and short skirts too, but in order to do so, I had to figure out a way to make sure my penis wasn’t in the picture. At the time, surgery was not an option. I needed a temporary fix, so I turned to tucking.
Tucking is a common practice whereby an individual hides the crotch bulge of the penis and testicles so that they are not visible through clothing. The ritual, which originated in drag culture is also exceedingly common among trans women. According to a 2016 survey of 28,000 trans adults released by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the majority of trans people forgo sex reassignment surgery for either financial or personal reasons. That means that for most trans people, non-surgical methods of bodily modification like tucking are often looked to for relief and comfort. But as I soon learned, while tucking is cheap and convenient, the long-term effects of the practice, if done improperly, can be quite damaging. There were days where I couldn’t walk or stand because of the searing pain between my legs.
Eventually, after a bloody incident, I began researching alternative methods. “Tucking of the testicles and penis may lead to hernias or other complications at the external inguinal ring or skin breakdown at the perineum,” says Dr. Madeline Deutsch, the Director of Transgender Care at University of California, San Francisco. “In addition to local skin effects, this practice could result in urinary trauma or infections.” Though comprehensive research is lacking, tucking has been linked with a variety of complications. Some of these include scrotal pain, testicular torsion, tearing, and even infertility.
Some days, I couldn’t breathe because my chest was so tight.
Painful methods of sex altering are not exclusive to trans women. Trans men, many of whom desire to minimize the visibility of their breasts, frequently endure a process called binding. Historically, because of cost and supply, some trans men have resorted to DIY versions of this practice by using tape or elastic materials. “Before top surgery, I had to tape down my chest every day,” says Toby Sherman, a Hartford-based trans man, in an interview with Playboy. “Binding was the only way I could wear tight t-shirts and tank tops and pass as male.”
For many trans people, practices like tucking and binding are not merely for aesthetic purposes, they are essential to our feelings of survival and safety while navigating a world that is notoriously hostile towards trans people who do not pass as cisgender. Research shows that transgender people who are visibly trans experience increased rates of anxiety and depression when moving through public spaces. Although tucking and binding can have painful effects on the body, they are often a source of protection for trans people from being perceived as trans by society. But the question remains: is there a safe and comfortable means of achieving this?
Sherman, a 23-year-old, describes binding his breasts for twelve hours at a time without any breaks. He only felt secure enough to leave his house when his breasts were completely flattened. “I would remove the tape at end of the day and my chest would be covered in blisters,” Sherman remember. “Some days, I couldn’t breathe because my chest was so tight. It’s really sad that trans bodies aren’t catered to. If there was a more comfortable method, it would have spared me a lot of the anxiety I felt back then about blending in…It didn’t’ help that all the binders online were basic and unattractive.”
In recent years, however, trans-inclusive undergarment designers and suppliers have started to surface on the fashion landscape. The undergarment industry is increasingly shifting its focus from solely producing functional pieces to ones that are fashionable and stylish as well. “The entire basis behind my line is that function and aesthetics need to coincide,” says Sky Cubacub, a genderqueer designer in Chicago. “It doesn’t have function without aesthetics. The function behind underwear and lingerie should be to make you feel sexy.”
Feeling good in your body and feeling sexy is equally as important of the function of compressing certain parts of your anatomy.
Cubacub founded Rebirth Garments, a line of clothing that specializes in undergarments for “people on the full spectrum of gender, size, and ability,” in 2014. Through their work, they aspire to create pieces that allow trans people to feel empowered and sensual while simultaneously maintaining their comfort and health. “I think it’s absurd that it’s taken so long for the undergarment industry to cater to trans and queer bodies,” says Cubacub. “The fashion industry is extremely behind in the times. What is available in stores is a direct representation of who is valued by society at large. The fashion industry is pretty much telling us that we’re not valued.”
“I began ideating my line when I was in high school,” Cubacub remembers. “I felt like I was genderqueer, but I didn’t have language to describe those feelings at the time. Eventually, I met several drag kings and I became obsessed with tucking and packing.“ Packing, according to Cubacub, is the the art of making it look like you have a realistic bulge in your pants to pass as a masculine-presenting person. Like binding, it is most frequently adopted by trans men. Cubacub says that they quickly realized that there was a gap in the market for trans-affirming undergarments that weren’t torturous and painful to wear. Most binders online are created with low-quality fabrics that irritate the skin and are not breathable.
“To make sure that my pieces are comfortable, I get a lot of feedback from each person,” Cubacub explains. “Trans people do not have uniform bodies so I make sure that with every single garment I make, I get specific measurements from people and ask about what levels of compression they are looking for. My binders and tucking undies are extremely comfortable because they don’t have many layers, and they don’t produce painful amounts of compression against the body.”
Moving forward, Cubacub hopes that designers will focus on creating more gender-affirming garments that are fashionable and colorful—reflecting of the vibrancy of the trans community. “So many gender trans-specific undergarments in the past and presently are very medicalizing and pathologizing, only coming in white, black, and a peach color they call nude,” Cubacub goes on. “My work comes in every single color of the rainbow. I encourage designers to use varied colors and fun patterns. Feeling good in your body and feeling sexy is equally as important of the function of compressing certain parts of your anatomy.“
Even though Rebirth is furthering notions of diversity and inclusion, undergarment designers at large are still lagging behind. The lack of options continues to leave trans people with pieces that are ill-fitting and irritating. “The undergarment industry is actually pretty conservative,” says Laura Henny, owner of The Rack Shack, a trans-inclusive lingerie store in Brooklyn. “Established brands are used to their way and for younger brands, it’s too expensive to develop something radical and new.” Henny describes The Rack Shack as a boutique that aims to empower all shapes, colors, and genders. Although Henny identifies as cisgender, she wanted to create an safe environment where her trans friends felt welcome and included. Henny says that over the years, her customer base has grown increasingly diverse. She hopes that brands will begin creating bras that are specifically suited to trans-feminine bodies.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of well fitting bra designs for trans girls,” says Henny. “Often times, trans girls may have larger rib cages but smaller breasts and designers need to be conscious of that. There should be more bras available with wider bands, smaller cups, and increased padding…Everyone needs to feel good about themselves and anyone who has a problem with that, I think, get a life.”
In 2018, Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek made troubling statements about trans women to Vogue. When asked about including trans women in the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show, Razek responded, “It’s like…shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy.”
Although problematic, Razek’s remarks shine a remarkable spotlight on the profound lack of attention focused on trans clientele in the lingerie industry. As trans people, our bodies have been historically deemed undesirable. As a result, our needs and comfort have been largely ignored to the detriment of our health. But in recent years, demand from trans people has increased.
Perhaps, one day in the near future, Razek and his like-minded peers will accept the demonstrated fact that the sexiest, safest, and most profitable fantasy is inclusion for all.